This is the place where my family was murdered. Auschwitz-Birkenau. I don’t have the exact number of relatives who were killed here, but at least 40 died at the hands of Nazis. I came on this trip to Poland so I could testify to the horrors of the Holocaust, so I can tell the world this is real. I came because I want to pay tribute to the six million Jewish souls alongside the many Roma, disabled, and others who were lost in the Holocaust.
Visiting the camps in Poland showed me horrors I never thought mankind could be capable of. We learned about how a Nazi commander would order Jews with “pretty” tattoos to be skinned and make lampshades out of their skin. We saw a large room filled with human hair the Nazis shaved from the Jews’ heads to make textiles and even saw a rug made out of this hair. The Nazis did everything they could to profit from our lives, from giving our clothing to German families to fertilizing their farms with our ashes. We saw the gas chambers covered with remnants of Zyklon B gas that was pumped through the ceiling as a method of mass extermination. We saw the rooms where the Nazis desecrated the bodies of the dead, ripped out their gold teeth and searched the body for valuables. We saw the burning pits where Nazis torched bodies when the ovens weren’t burning bodies fast enough.
It is a strange feeling to know that my family’s hair might be on display or that their bodies might be in one of the many mass graves we saw. I’ll never know. I’ll never know what their favorite meals were, what songs they sang at Shabbat dinner, what stories they told to their children before bed. They are my family, but I will never know them.
I learned how the Jews in the Warsaw ghetto were limited to just 180 calories a day. Imagine doing strenuous labor in the snow on such few calories. Visiting the Mydanek concentration and death camp was a cold I have never experienced before. It was bleak outside, but the death surrounding us made the cold more bitter. How could we complain we were cold in our Columbia jackets and North Face boots while our ancestors wore shoes made of paper and wood and had no coats? How could we complain that we were hungry for lunch when our ancestors were lucky to have some hot broth?
This isn’t just history, this is our story. This is the story of my family. In Judaism, we believe that remembering the dead and doing good deeds in their name helps them become closer to G-d in the afterlife. At Auschwitz, I found my family’s names in the book of victim’s names on display in one of the old barracks. It was the largest book I had ever seen, with more than 10,000 pages in the book and the names of more than four million people who died. The remaining two million names are unknown. With so many victims, especially so many unknown victims, how will we remember all of them? It feels good to be able to see my family’s names, to remember them and to carry on their legacy, but so many people have no idea who in their family was killed.
The Nazis took so much from us. In Warsaw, I learned how there were around 300,000 Jews in the city before the Holocaust. Today, there are just a couple thousand Jews. The Jewish community in Warsaw was thriving with arts, music, theater, and so much life. All of that was lost to the Nazis, but we are the generation that can rebuild.
The Jewish people have been through so much evil, from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition, to the Holocaust. It is a miracle we have survived, and through the help of G-d, we will build the Jewish future.
In Poland, we were reminded of the harsh reality that antisemitism still exists today. As we were visiting an old synagogue, a man yelled Heil Hitler at us, and I saw anti-Jewish graffiti written in Polish on the freeway.
I learned how the Nazis traveled to an island in Greece that only had one living Jewish person. They were willing to travel a month to take one person all the way to Auschwitz. In the words of my friend Sherri,
“the Nazis put so much emphasis on one Jewish life and we need to, too.”
The Nazis wanted us to lose hope, to feel subhuman, to turn on each other. What better way to get revenge than being louder and prouder? We will keep growing, keep spreading love and keep strengthening our faith.
Nearly two-thirds of European Jewish Holocaust survivors went to the Holy Land after the war to try to establish a safe haven for the Jewish people in our ancestral homeland. Standing at Auschwitz, I am reminded that Am Yisrael Chai — the Jewish people shall live.
This trip showed me that Judaism is not just something I do for myself. I am Jewish for those who came before me and for those who will come after me. We need to be role models for the world. We need to do our best to do the right thing, to treat people fairly, and to live with the ethics that Torah teaches us. We need to be louder. We need to be prouder.
Am Yisrael Chai. The Jewish people shall live.